Don't stress over your thesis; no one will read it.

Lenny Teytelman May 05, 2015

Writing the dissertation is hard. I particularly found the two months of procrastinating and staring at the blank first page painful. That time when you suddenly feel compelled to cook a lavish meal, put together the Ikea shelf that was lying there for five months and generally do anything that gives you an excuse not to stare at that blank page. The 30-second procrastination clip in Adaptation captured this perfectly:

But once I got over the first page, it wasn't all that bad. What helped was my firm conviction that no one would read this behemoth. I couldn't imagine my advisors, knowing every detail of my work over the six years, spending a week re-reading the chapters already published as manuscripts. I had an even harder time imagining them reading the last chapter that they would have to read in a much better manuscript form in a few months, once the last experiments are done. So I assumed that only the abstract, acknowledgements and the introductory paragraph had a chance of being scanned by the poor professors on my thesis committee.

Not only was I sure no one would read it, I was convinced Michael Eisen, my co-advisor wouldn't even flip through it carefuly before signing. So we had a $5 bet with my labmate Ryan Shultzaberger. Inserted the page above into both of our theses, and sure enough, I won. Mike signed both of them without flagging the photo until we showed it to him at the graduation party. I kind of feel bad for Mike now.

Now there is an occasional outlier on your thesis committee. I actually had one professor who read every single word, edited extensively and met with me for three hours to discuss some of the phrasing. These faculty are rare and everyone knows who they are. Ask around if you have one on your committee. The consensus around these PIs is usually something like, "Yes, he will read it. His students would be better served if instead he read their manuscript drafts. Those have been on his desk for a months." And if you do have this person, the tip is to politely thank them, implement the changes on the first few pages and ignore the bulk of useless editing. Sit on it for a week, then give it back in printed form. Even these PIs are not that crazy to re-read and search for your edits.

When I asked about the value of this time-intensive excersise, my co-advisor Jasper Rine said, "Well, after this, any grant or fellowship proposal you write in the future will seem infinitely tractable."